Bon Odori 2.0: Japanese summer tradition moves online amid pandemic

Photo by Joshua C. Millage, U.S. Navy
Photo by Joshua C. Millage, U.S. Navy

Bon Odori 2.0: Japanese summer tradition moves online amid pandemic

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

Summer in Japan can’t go on without Bon Odori!

Had it not been for COVID-19, this would be about the time you’d see many people sporting their summer kimonos around the city and at festivals. The tradition is part of Bon Odori, which run from July to the end of August.

Bon Odori festivals, which are usually held on shrine, temple or public square grounds, are important events that bring communities together. Although today’s Bon Odori festivals only last a few hours, when they first started hundreds of years ago, they were overnight events held to entertain ancestors’ souls which were believed to be staying with their family for Bon period. Back then, the festivals were held July 15-16 following the lunar calendar. According to the lunar calendar, the 15th of each month there is a full moon, which allowed people dance overnight under the bright moon light.


Photo courtesy of Ikegami Honmonji Temple

 

What is Bon?

Bon is a traditional festive period to honor and entertain ancestors’ souls. As the current solar calendar is about a month behind the lunar calendar, today, Bon is observed Aug. 13-15 in most regions.

Japanese usually set up shoryo-dana (festival altar for souls) and clean up family tombs to prepare for Bon. When the Bon period begins on Aug. 13, families light up their lanterns or make a small bonfire, called mukaebi (welcoming fire) at the entrance of their homes to guide and welcome ancestor’s souls.

The Bon period is a family-oriented time where children return to their parent’s home to celebrate. On Aug. 16 or couple of days later, another bonfire, called okuribi, is made to see off one’s ancestors.

 

Shoryo-dana and Shoryo-uma

During Bon, you may see a square altar displayed in Japanese homes. This is Shoryo-dana (festival altar for souls), also known as Bon-dana and is used to place pictures and other items of the deceased, as well as an incense burner.

Also, some families make a small horse out of a cucumber and a small cow of out of an eggplant. The legs are made of chopsticks or matchsticks. These are called Shoryo-uma (horse for souls). Usually they are placed with an incense burner outside of the entrance of a home on the first day of Bon to welcome that ancestors’ souls.

It is believed that the souls come back home quickly on a cucumber horse, tracing the trail of incense, and leave later slowly on an eggplant cow. The horse and cow are placed on altar on the second day.

People will display lanterns, flowers and food items around the altar.


Photo courtesy of Aya Carlson

 

Yukata

To enjoy the festival atmosphere, why don’t you try wearing yukata, a casual summer kimono usually made of cotton, linen or synthetic fabric. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a yukata, you can find inexpensive ones at most department stores or your base exchange. You won’t regret wearing a yukata, especially on a hot summer day. It’s also a great souvenir for family and friends. Usually yukata are worn at Japanese traditional outdoor summer events, such as a natsu-matsuri (summer festival) and hanabi (fireworks) festivals.    

 

Rethinking Bon Odori in 2020

Nowadays, Bon Odori festivals are held throughout July and August, depending on each community’s schedule.

Usually this period means big parties with lots of food, traditional dances and other performance, festival games like kingyo-sukui (goldfish scooping) and shateki (a shooting game), and lots and lots of people. The events are set up early in the day and by sunset, paper lanterns are illuminated and taiko drums reverberate in many neighborhoods and districts around the country.

This year, however, there will be less festivities with communities opting for online gatherings instead.

Jiyugaoka and Sendagaya districts in Tokyo offered their online bon odori on July 30 – August 2 and July 23, respectively. Dance instructors in summer kimono demonstrated their elegant dancing by keeping social distance in vacant festival site, which was beautifully lit up with traditional chochin lanterns, while residents were watching it online at home to feel the enthusiastic atmosphere. You can still check out the Sendagaya Bon Odori on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s70XyPtJpFY&feature=youtu.be

More  i festivals are planned in August, so make plans to check those out. It won’t be the same, but it will still give you some insight for when the festivals return next year.

On Aug. 15 and 16, the Nakano Station Square Bon Odori with limited number of in-person participants will broadcast online at http://ptix.at/EYTAfK (Japanese language).

And, the Sapporo Tourist Association will also host its virtual festival everyday through Aug. 16 from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at https://domingo.ne.jp/dokobon2020 (Japanese).

This is an unusual summer without a doubt, so it might be fun of enjoying the traditional summer event in an unusual way, too.

 

Eisa 

The people of Okinawa also have their own form of Bon Odori called “Eisa.” Like Bon Odori on mainland Japan, this festival is held during the Bon period to see off ancestors’ souls.

At Eisa festivals, young male and female dancers in colorful and exotic Okinawan traditional attire with hand drums and sanshin (Okinawan banjo), parade around the village, dancing, singing and chanting. Unlike Bon Odori festivals, spectators do not participate in the dancing.

Popular Eisa festivals include Okinawa Zento Eisa Matsuri (Okinawa City), Senbaru Eisa (Kadena), Yakena Eisa (Uruma), Kyan Eisa (Itoman), Eguchi Eisa(Chatan).

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